Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

History Paintings

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, MMA-NYC, 1851

History Paintings

History Paintings are a genre in painting defined by its subject matter and usually depict a moment in a narrative story. Prior to the 19th century, the most common subjects for history paintings included religious, mythological and allegorical subjects, representing the broadest view of history painting. From the 19th-century art, the term has been used in a narrower sense to refer to the painting of a “story” or “narrative” from secular history.

History paintings almost always contain a number of figures and normally showing action or drama that is central to a narrative. History paintings were traditionally regarded as the highest form of Western painting, occupying the most prestigious place in the hierarchy of genres. Historic Paintings were considered equal to the epics in literature because it was a visual form of history, with the potential to stir emotions in the audience.

Scenes from ancient history were popular in the early Renaissance, and again in the Baroque and Rococo periods, and peaked with the rise of Neoclassicism. In the 20th century, the term refers specifically to paintings of scenes from secular history, rather than those from religious narratives, literature or mythology.

This list of History Paintings is derived from a list of paintings that are the most searched for on this website.  Religious narratives, literature or mythology paintings are listed separately below.


Most 20th century paintings, have copyright restrictions, limiting our ability to feature many modern artists. Approval to use images of works that are still under copyright have been requested, and we hope to receive appropriate permissions to feature more recent art.


“We hunger to understand, so we invent myths about how we imagine the world is constructed – and they are, of course, based upon what we know.”  
– Carl Sagan


Photo Credit: By Giovan Battista Gaulli – Beauvais, Musée départemental de l’Oise ([1] – Olio su tela, cm. 149 x 222) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons